Without a doubt, music can transform your mood. It can energize you, inspire you, relax you, or make you sad. But did you know that music can help patients in many ways?
Music and healing were once tightly connected. For instance, the Chinese character for medicine includes the character for music. And in ancient Greece, music was used to ease stress, promote sleep, and soothe pain. And Native Americans and Africans used singing and chanting as part of their healing rituals.
Western medicine moved away from music and focused on the science of medicine. However, things are evolving as music therapists demonstrate the value of music for treating people with a variety of conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, heart conditions, and substance abuse problems.
To be clear, music is not a miracle drug or treatment. And it’s not going to cure cancer or prevent a stroke. But it can help people feel better, heal faster, and cope better with medical procedures.
How does music help patients?
Some research suggests that music may promote the brain’s ability to make new connections between nerve cells. Others think it’s the rhythms that help people since our heartbeat, breathing, and brain waves are all rhythmic, and our brain and nervous system respond to rhythm and repetition, tones and tunes.
Additionally, studies suggest that music might help the heart and circulation, as well as the brain, possibly by slowing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and reducing stress hormones.
For instance, researchers found that joyful music caused a 26% increase in blood flow, which is similar to the impact of exercise or taking statins. In contrast, laughter led to a 19% increase in blood flow, while relaxation led to 11% increase. Conversely, music that caused anxiety led to a 6% decrease in blood flow.
And as Suzanne Hanser, music therapy department chair at the Berklee College of Music says, music therapy can alleviate stress, provide a pleasant coping strategy, and impart a feeling of control.
What types of music can help patients?
Unsurprisingly, soothing music has different effects on the heart and body than energetic music. But taste in music is very personal. What you find relaxing, others may find annoying.
Currently, it’s unclear which type of music is best for particular patients and particular health conditions. For instance, can the same relaxing melody slow the heart rate, reduce blood pressure, and improve blood flow for opera buffs and rock-and-roll fans? More research is needed to determine which specific musical sounds or tempos can help patients.
What is music therapy?
Certainly, you can listen to music on your own, to help you relax or reduce stress. However, there are professional music therapists who help people reach their own goals.
Music therapy became a formal practice in the wake of World Wars I and II. Doctors treating hospitalized veterans noticed that patients improved physically and emotionally following concerts by community musicians.
There are two types of music therapy: receptive and active. In receptive therapy, people listen to music, either pre-recorded or live, selected by a therapist. In active therapy, the therapist and/or the patient play musical instruments and sing.
Music therapy can help patients in many ways, including:
- Promote Wellness.
- Manage Stress.
- Alleviate Pain.
- Express Feelings.
- Enhance Memory.
- Improve Communication.
- Promote Physical Rehabilitation.
Music helps cardiovascular patients heal.
Many experts believe music can help your cardiovascular system in many ways, including:
- Lower heart rates.
- Lower breathing rates and oxygen demands for those recovering from heart attacks.
- Help patients recover from a cardiac procedure.
- Help patients recover from a heart attack or stroke.
- Relieve stress.
- Lower blood pressure.
Currently, music therapy is most commonly used for those undergoing a cardiac procedure or recovering from a heart attack. Additionally, music therapy can help patients learning to cope with heart failure or other cardiovascular conditions.
Research shows impact of music for those with cardiovascular issues.
Many researchers have found positive effects of music on cardiac measures, including:
- Bed-ridden patients with heart disease who listened to music for 30 minutes had lower blood pressure, slower heart rates, and less distress than those who didn’t listen to music.
- Heart attack survivors who listened to restful music in a quiet room for 20 minutes felt less anxious about their health, as compared to those who rested in a quiet room without music.
- Patients who listened to music soon after cardiac surgery felt less anxious and reported less pain than those who just rested quietly.
- Adding music therapy to standard cardiac rehabilitation led to better control of blood pressure, and improved general and mental health, as compared to rehab alone.
- When older volunteers listened to relaxing music for 25 minutes a day for 4 weeks, their blood pressure improved. In contrast, a control group that didn’t listen to music had no change in blood pressure.
- When patients hospitalized for major strokes listened to recorded music for at least 1 hour/day, their verbal memory significantly improved, as compared to patients who listened to audiobooks or received no auditory stimulation. Additionally, the ability to perform and control certain mental operations improved for the music listeners, but patients in the other two groups showed no improvement on the same tasks.
However, several other studies found that music had little effect on heart rate, blood pressure, or recovery from cardiac procedures.
Music can help dementia and Alzheimer’s patients.
Interestingly, music can help the behavior, mood, and quality of life for those with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Listening to and performing music reactivates areas of the brain associated with memory, reasoning, speech, emotion, and reward.
For example, social worker Dan Cohen created customized playlists for dementia patients in a nursing home based on family suggestions of music previously enjoyed by each patient.
Although these patients seemed cut off from the world, when they listened to the music – which ranged from jazz to rock to classical – their reactions were inspiring. Some of the patients had seemed unable to speak, yet they sang and danced to the music. Others were able to remember when and where they had previously heard that music.
Additionally, two other studies found that music helps people retrieve stored memories and create new ones. In both studies, healthy elderly people scored better on tests of memory and reasoning after participating in several weekly physical exercise classes while listening to music.
For more information on this topic, visit the website of the nonprofit organization Music and Memory. And if you have someone in your life with cognitive impairment, make them a playlist of their favorite music.
Music therapy can help with balance and coordination.
Falling is a serious problem, particularly for those over 65. Fortunately, music can help people with balance and coordination, which can lead to a reduced risk of falls.
One study evaluated people 65+ who were at risk of falling, but had no major physical or neurological problems that limited walking. The group that received training to walk and move in time to music exhibited better gait and balance than the group who didn’t receive the training. Additionally, in the 6 months after the training started, the “dancing” group experienced 54% fewer falls.
Help for Parkinson’s disease patients.
Music therapy can help Parkinson’s disease (PD) patients with balance, communication, cognition, mental health, and social isolation. Programs for those with PD include dance therapy, singing, and drumming.
For example, research shows that music can substantially improve movement-related symptoms, as rhythm can enhance connections between the motor and auditory systems. Many studies show that musical rhythm can improve gait (speed, frequency, and step length), coordination of limbs, postural control, and balance.
Music can help patients cope with the stress of surgery.
Several trials show that music can reduce the stress of illness or surgery, including:
One study evaluated the impact of music on patients undergoing cataract surgery, which takes place while patients are awake. The blood pressure during and after surgery was lower for those who listened to music before, during, and after surgery, as compared to patients who didn’t listen to music. Additionally, the music listeners, each of whom chose their own music, reported feeling calmer and better during the procedure.
Additionally, one study examined how much IV sedative patients gave themselves during urologic surgery with a spinal anesthetic. The patients who listened to music gave themselves less IV sedative, as compared to patients who didn’t listen to music. Note that the study did not indicate the type of music used.
Although the patients in the 2 studies above were awake during their procedures, music can also reduce the stress response for patients having surgery while unconscious. A study of critically ill patients recovering from surgery found that those listening to music (slow movements from Mozart piano sonatas), needed significantly lower levels of a powerful IV sedative to keep them sedated. Additionally, the music listeners had lower blood pressure and heart rates, as well as lower blood levels of the stress hormone adrenaline and the pro-inflammatory protein IL-6.
Interestingly, in another study, researchers found that surgeons showed fewer signs of stress and demonstrated improved performance while listening to music they chose.
Music can improve depression.
Music an relieve stress and improve mood, even in people with depression. We’ve all felt the positive energy that comes with listening to music we enjoy, but research shows that music can help lift the mood of those with depressive illnesses.
For instance, several studies found that music therapy reduced symptoms of depression, although some studies found no benefit.
Additionally, in a study of adults with chronic pain, music reduced pain, depression, and disability. And, researchers found that music-assisted relaxation can improve sleep quality for those with sleep disorders.
Certainly, music is likely only part of a solution for people with depression. But any help, particularly one with no side effects, seems like a welcome addition to depression treatments.
Music can help patients with speech problems.
Music can help people who have speech problems associated with left-brain damage, such as those recovering from a stroke or brain injury.
For example, Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center found that singing can help patients recovering from a stroke or brain injury that damaged the left-brain region responsible for speech. Because singing originates in the right-brain, people with left-brain damage can learn to speak singing first and then gradually dropping the melody.
Interestingly, singing can also help healthy people learn words and phrases faster.
Music can help those struggling with substance abuse.
Music therapy can help people receiving treatment for a drug or alcohol addiction in many ways. For instance, it can help people identify and articulate feelings, achieve relaxation, build connection, and create a sense of accomplishment.
Music can help people manage pain.
A large number of studies have provided considerable evidence that music (listening or performing) can decrease pain levels.
For instance, in one study, cancer patients who listened to music reported significantly less pain than patients who didn’t listen to music.
Similarly, a study of fibromyalgia patients found that listening to relaxing, pleasant, self-chosen music significantly reduced pain and increased functional mobility.
However, the jury is still out about how music helps pain sufferers.
Some experts believe pain relief may occur by the release of pain-relieving endorphins or the release of pain-relieving dopamine.
Other research suggests that listening to music can strongly effect pain perception, possibly through modulation of pain-related responses in the anterior cingulate cortex (a part of the brain).
And, since music can help you relax and feel less anxious, pain may lessen. Lastly, music can provide a distraction from pain.
How can you use music to help you heal?
Certainly, many studies show the benefits of listening to music while you are recovering from an illness, dealing with a chronic condition, or undergoing a procedure. Unsurprisingly, there is no guarantee music will help you, and you certainly shouldn’t consider music a substitute for medical care. However, there is no harm in listening to music, so why not try it?
There are several options for using music for healing.
Firstly, you can work with a music therapist who can help you find music that will relax you. Additionally, a therapist can help you actively listen to music, which can release anxiety, improve energy, and decrease negative thoughts. And he/she might even have you make your own music!
Ask your doctor or hospital if there is a music therapist on staff. If not, you can look for a therapist through the American Music Therapy Association.
Additionally, if you need surgery or a major procedure, ask your doctor if the hospital has a music therapy program. If there is no formal program, ask if you can listen to music before, during, and after your procedure.
Of course, you can also listen to music on your own. Choose music that makes you feel good, including some relaxing pieces and a few stimulating ones. If you feel stressed, sit and listen to the soothing music for 20 minutes or so. If you need a pick-me-up, play something energizing. While listening, pay attention to how it makes you feel.
Music can help doctors and doctors.
Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 has led to a significant increase in the stress healthcare providers experience. Interestingly, concern for their wellbeing has led to the creation of music therapy rooms. The goal is to provide immersive sound therapy rooms where frontline healthcare providers, such as doctors and nurses, can relax and recharge.
For tips that can help you get the best healthcare possible, read these posts:
- 10 Tips for a Better Medical Appointment.
- How Can You Get the Best Healthcare? Actively Participate!
- 10 Tips to Communicate Better with Doctors.
- Understanding Medical Information Is Harder Than Most Realize.
- What is the Best Time of Day for Medical Care?
NOTE: I updated this post on 4-11-22.